How to Report a Sexual Assault: A Guide for Canadian Students

In August of last year, Now Toronto posted a jarring piece outlining how universities across Canada silence and abandon victims of sexual assault.

Throughout that summer, the infamous Stanford rape case had taken priority positions in most of our feeds, whether they be social or news. In a 2015 documentary, The Hunting Ground (on Netflix), the climate of sexual violence at universities across America was blown open. And as another September creeps closer, I know that masses of eager, rosy-eyed students will flock to these hunting grounds again.

And I’m afraid for them.

Statistics surrounding sexual assault in this country are hard to find (Canada’s informational site looks like a computer project circa 2001 compared to America’s sexual assault resource site, RAINN). When they are found, statistics are often problematic.

…victims are still largely abandoned by the justice system in Canada…

A Canadian Centre for Justice survey reported that police-reported data showed remarkably less incidents of sexual assault than victimization surveys; the reasons behind this are numerous and complex, but the overarching reason is that victims are still largely abandoned by the justice system in Canada—as a result, rape is the most under-reported crime in the country (I would theorize the world). Earlier this year, the Alberta government revealed it is only just about to adopt standardized protocol for sexual assault in its law enforcement; no other province has their own protocol, or made an apparent move to do the same.

Politics and semantics aside, the reality is that for far too many students, sexual assault will be a part of their university experience. And when you suddenly find yourself suddenly thrown into such murky waters, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to know what to do next.

The following is intended to hypothetically guide you through the options available, as well as inform about the realities of reporting sexual assault, should you find yourself a victim.

If you have been assaulted: I am truly, deeply sorry that this has happened to you. Know that you are not alone, others love you, and that whatever happened, it wasn’t your fault.

 

First and foremost: your safety is top priority.

If you are in immediate danger, get help: call 911, or go to your nearest hospital/police station/campus security post.

Experiencing sexual trauma is just that – traumatic. There is no right or wrong way to feel or behave afterward. However you feel is completely valid, but try and remember that no matter what happened, it was not your fault. Nobody should have to experience sexual assault and I am so sorry this happened to you.

Whenever/however you feel ready, you can begin to consider the various paths available.

These paths are:
Receiving medical attention.

Reporting to authorities.

Seeking emotional support.

Talking to media.

You can choose one, or various, or none of these. It is completely and totally your choice, and no choice would be wrong.

 

Seeking Medical Care.

Ideally, a person should receive medical care directly after the assault–with 72 hours at the most. It’s advised not to change your clothing or shower, even though this is very tempting.

Receiving medical attention after a sexual assault can be daunting; especially if you’re not sure whether you want to report or not. However there are many important reasons in support of seeing a doctor after an assault: professionals can guide you through such concerns as transmitting diseases or becoming pregnant.

You can receive an examination without reporting to police, and doctors cannot release any information without your consent, so nobody has to know you visited one. However, even a doctor’s visit can be used as evidence in a future trial, should the assailant be charged.

Larger populated areas throughout Canada have sexual assault response teams or care centres. These house staff who are specially trained in sexual assault and trauma, and who are equipped to support you through this. Unfortunately, services are notoriously difficult to access in rural areas.

A rape kit collects evidence, and will only be taken if you choose to report to law enforcement.

Receiving medical attention for injuries sustained during an assault is not the same thing as having a rape kit taken. In the former, criminal evidence won’t be collected or recorded. A rape kit collects evidence, and will only be taken if you choose to report to law enforcement.

You are allowed to ask a friend, family member, or a sexual assault support worker to accompany you throughout a rape kit or any examination you receive for your assault. Support workers can be provided by the hospital, or they can connect you with services. Depending on the area, male victim or LGBTQ+ liaisons may be available.

In the U.S., anyone is allowed to take a rape kit anonymously and have it kept on file until/if they decide to report; unfortunately, no such law exists in Canada. Victims are allowed to receive medical care without reporting to police; however in Canada, in order for forensic evidence to be collected, a report must be made.

Throughout this process, the doctor should be informing you of each step that’s happening and asking for your permission to proceed.

Rape kits typically involve forms for the physician, and swabs and bags to collect evidence such as hairs or clothing. Depending on the crime blood or urine samples will also be taken, along with photographic evidence. Throughout this process, the doctor should be informing you of each step that’s happening and asking for your permission to proceed.

[Rape kits – or Sexual Assault Evidence Kits – are in themselves a topic of debate, and at victims’ expense. In 2015, the National Post exposed the antiquated and invasive protocol outlined in the RCMP-sanctioned rape kits that are delivered to every hospital in the country, which mean that many survivors undergo painful exams within hours of experiencing their trauma. This isn’t to mention the fact that most rural populations have no access to rape kits at all.]

A more in-depth look at the medical examination process can be found on BC Women’s website, though protocol may vary slightly by province and territory.

[For LGBTQ+ survivors — any discrimination you could face surrounding your identity is commonly a huge roadblock in reporting an assault to the police, seeking medical care, or talking to counsellors. For example: fear of disbelief makes reporting to police nearly impossible for male victims, and seeking medical care can be doubly distressing for trans, two-spirit, or non-binary survivors. (Though my research was extensive, I’ve struggled to come up with concrete resources for non-cis victims wishing to undergo the rape kit process.

In one devastating article from the states, a survivor claims that rape kits can’t be taken by anyone without a vagina, which is problematic to say the least. No evidence of such limitations seems to be in place in Canada, but any protocol involving specifically male or non-cis survivors is non-existent, too.

Your campus Pride centre can be a source of support; some centres might be able to connect you with a gay, bi, or trans community liaison. These liaisons can accompany you to the hospital, and can help you communicate with law enforcement.

More information for LGBTQ+ survivors can be found here and here.]

If you haven’t reported but are receiving medical attention, and wish to have a rape kit taken, it’s at this time that a local police officer would be called to take a report. You cannot give a rape kit and not report; however, you can report and not have a rape kit taken.

More information about the medical process after sexual assault can be found here.

 

Reporting to Police

There are many reasons a person may be nervous about reporting, from fear of being blamed or judged, to having no faith in the justice system. This Globe & Mail piece explores the outcomes of 36 different survivors reporting to police and only three had “positive” experiences.

Your local police will have a victim services unit who can connect you with other resources, such as counselling.

An initial report typically involves the officer asking you questions. They may ask you to write a statement of the event. If you haven’t received medical attention, it’s at this time you would be asked to have a rape kit taken at your nearest hospital/medical centre. You can choose to not have a rape kit taken at all, which is completely okay; just know that you may be sacrificing evidence. Your local police will have a victim services unit who can connect you with other resources, such as counselling.

This guide published by the Toronto police aims to bridge the gap between P.O.’s and the trans community; it offers information for trans people regarding reporting a crime, testifying in court, and navigating the sexual assault investigation process as a trans person. It also states that LGBTQ+ people are allowed to ask for an LGBTQ+ community liaison when dealing with law enforcement.

After an initial report is made, officers will be assigned to investigate the case.

If the assailant was known to you, the case will be given to the division where the assault took place.

If the assailant was a stranger, the case will be assigned to sex crimes.

Investigators will keep you up to date about case status, bail conditions, court dates, and final sentencing. They will also keep you connected with victim services.

…the police can choose not to charge the assailant; this usually means there is not enough evidence.

It is upon investigation that the police will decide whether to lay charges or not. If charged, the assailant is arrested and tried, and becomes “the accused.” However, the police can choose not to charge the assailant; this usually means there is not enough evidence.

If the accused is charged, most sexual assault cases will have a preliminary hearing; this is a pre-trial, where it is determined whether there is enough evidence to go to trial. More information about the evidence used in sexual assault trials can be found here.

The accused will make multiple court appearances throughout this time, and may be let out on bail – however a condition of bail will be a No Contact Order, so they will not be able to contact you. The victim only has to appear at the preliminary hearing, and the criminal trial.

Depending on the case, this process can take a few months to a couple of years.

More information on this process can be found here.

Reporting to your campus authorities is an option, however it must be noted that they have limited jurisdiction and power.

Reporting to your campus authorities (department heads; security) is an option, however it must be noted that they have limited jurisdiction and power. For example, if you report a sexual assault to your university and the assailant drops out, transfers, or graduates, the case is no longer in the university’s power and they will be forced to drop it.

Even if the assault happened on campus: your local police will have jurisdiction over campus security. If the assault didn’t happen on campus but with a fellow student, your university may contest that the crime is out of their jurisdiction.

 

Seeking Counselling

Trauma alters your brain. When experiencing a sexual assault, one enters a state of survival mode that doesn’t quite turn off even after the event is over.

The trauma then lives unprocessed in the mind, where it resurfaces when “triggered” and manifests most commonly through panic attacks and flashbacks. There is no going back to who you were before it happened; there is only integrating who it has made you now.

Friends and family may be struggling with how to support you…

This is a difficult road to travel, to say the least. Friends and family may be struggling with how to support you, and in my experience, turning to them was the hardest because I was (am) ashamed of what had been done to me.

Therapy can be a wonderful support system, and you can find it in a variety of ways. Having a trained, objective party like a psychiatrist validate your experiences, while guiding you through the difficult emotions and sensations they bring up, can be extremely useful.

That being said, the world of mental health care is far from perfect. Unfortunately in Canada, costs for mental health care providers come out of the patients’ pocket; most provincial and territorial health care systems don’t cover psychiatrists or therapists. Check with your insurance or benefits provider about the options available to you, or visit CMHA’s site for more info.

When talking with a therapist about your assault, everything you say is completely and totally confidential.

Most universities have a mental health centre for students, where support groups and counsellors will be available with no or minimal charge. When talking with a therapist about your assault, everything you say is completely and totally confidential.

By law, a therapist or counsellor can only break this confidentiality agreement if they truly believe you are a danger to yourself or others. For more information about your rights when seeing a therapist, click here.

If face-to-face therapy isn’t suitable for you, there are other options. Apps such as Seven Cups or the Crisis Text Line offer anonymous chatting with counsellors via text and direct messaging, and they’re absolutely free. Crisis hotlines have been operating for years, and are also a valid option for support.

More outreach services for victims can be found with these groups:

. Hope 247 (includes resources for LGBTQ+; male survivors)

. Dawn Canada (includes resources for disabled women; indigenous women)

. Sexual Assault Survivor’s Support Line & Leadership (includes resources for transgender, two-spirit and non-binary survivors)

. 1 in 6 (for male survivors)

If counselling of any kind is unappealing or not possible, it’s important that you find at least one source of support. This could be a trustworthy friend or a companion animal. Your community may also have support groups, or art therapy groups available on a drop-in or anonymous basis. A community centre near me actually hosts a drop-in yoga class specifically for and sensitive to sexual assault survivors.

Maybe you just want to curl up in a blanket burrito and try the talking-about-it therapy thing in a few months. Which is totally cool, too.

At any rate, you deserve to heal, and at the pace that makes sense for you.

 

Talking To Media/Going Public

Our society is in the midst of a sexual awakening. If the “love movement” of the sixties fought for our right to have casual, freeing sex, then this century’s movement is fighting for our right to say “no.” A acquaintance of mine even went so far the other day as to (bluntly) call 2017 the “rape year.” Of every five news headlines that take up space on my feeds, at least one is about sexual assault

Mass media coverage is part of what is waking the world up to the epidemic of sexual assault, especially in regard to the sexual climate at university campuses.

Getting your story out there can be validating. And if police, medical care providers, or university alumni mishandled your trauma in any way, then they deserved to be called out publicly. Mass media coverage is part of what is waking the world up to the epidemic of sexual assault, especially in regard to the sexual climate at university campuses.

It’s completely acceptable, and your business, if you wish to integrate your trauma privately – depending on the people and circumstance, this can be the only safe option, too. It’s okay if you feel like nobody, or only a select few, know this about you.

For some, speaking up can turn out to be a part of the healing. Talking with the local newspaper, a campus zine, or posting something on a blog or website can be incredibly validating, and offer closure. If you feel like this is the road for you, don’t let anyone feel like you should remain silent.

 

In Summary

Sexual assault is a traumatic, life-altering crime that nobody should ever have to experience. How you feel is never wrong, and how you handle your trauma is never wrong. There is no perfect formula.

The most important facet in all of this is you: keeping you safe, and helping you recover from an incredibly devastating event. Be patient and kind with yourself, always.

Bre Fischer

Bre Fischer

Bre Fischer is an author, screenwriter, passionate feminist, activist, Supernatural fanatic and cat person living in Vancouver, BC.